A Moral Thought Experiment That Breaks My Brain

Note: This blog post is not about computers or math or DevOps. I like those things, and I write about them usually. But not today.

Sometimes I read something and I’m like “that can’t be right,” but then I think about it for a while and I can’t figure out why it’s not right. This happens to me especially often with arguments about moral intuition.

We humans make moral judgements and decisions all day, every day, without even thinking about it. It’s a central part of what makes us us.

Try this: pick a moral belief that you hold very firmly. For example, I went with, “It’s wrong to treat people with less respect because of their sexual orientation.” Now, try to imagine no longer believing that thing. Imagine that everything about your mind is the same, except you no longer hold to that one belief or its consequences. It’s hard, isn’t it? It really feels like you wouldn’t be the same person.

We know that our moral beliefs change over the course of our lives, and so that feeling of our selves being tightly coupled to those beliefs must be an illusion. But still, it’s very disturbing when a well constructed thought experiment forces us to reevaluate our basic moral intuitions.

What follows is a thought experiment that has such a brain-breaking effect on me. We can’t all be moral geniuses who cut right through the Trolley Problem like this kid:

Making People Happy, or Making Happy People?

On this week’s episode of Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast, the Scottish moral philosopher and effective altruism wunderkind Will MacAskill gave a very brief but very brain-breaking argument. It’s had me scratching my chin intensely for a couple days now.

It seems intuitive to me that we, as humans, have no moral obligation to make sure that more humans come into existence in the future. After all, it’s not like you owe anything to hypothetical people who will never come into existence. There seems to me to be no way that such a moral obligation could arise. I think a lot of people would agree with this intuition.

Will MacAskill’s argument (and I’m not sure it’s his originally, but I heard it from him) goes like this. Imagine what we’ll call World A. World A has some number of people in it, living their lives. And let’s also imagine World B, which has all the same people as World A, plus another person named Harry. Everybody in World B is exactly as well-off as their counterparts in World A, and Harry’s well-being is at a 6 out of 10. He’s moderately well-off.

blog_world_a_b
Photo credit: Brett Swanson

According to my intuition that there is no moral reason to prefer World B, in which Harry exists, to World A, in which Harry never came into being. If we say the total moral value of World A is a and the moral value of World B is b, I believe that a = b.

Alright, MacAskill says, now let’s introduce World C. This world is identical to World A, except it includes a person named Harry whose well-being is an 8 out of 10. He’s very happy almost all the time!

blog_world_c.png

Now, by the same logic I used before, letting World C’s total moral value equal c, I have to say that a = c. This world with a Harry at well-being level 8 is not preferable to a world in which Harry never existed.

This puts me in a bit of a pickle. Because, by straight-up math, we know that if a = b and a = c then b = c. In other words, there’s no moral reason to prefer World C to World B. But come on! World C is exactly like World B except that Harry is better off. Obviously it’s an objectively preferable world.

I feel reductio ad absurdum‘d and it makes me very uncomfortable. Does this mean I have an obligation to have kids if I think I can give them happy lives? I don’t believe that, but I’m not sure what to believe now.

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